Here’s How Our Brains Figure Out Whom to ‘Cancel’


Dec 24, 2019


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If a person commits wrongdoings, chances are that another will reprimand them or cancel them — basically reject their behavior in a social context. This could be true for both the victim of the offense and a neutral third-party individual who is offended at the offense. Now, there’s an explanation for how different parts of the brain come together and make the decision to inflict social punishment.

With respect to creating and maintaining co-operation between people, two methods of communication and intent come to mind — reciprocity or positive responses to a situation or negative reciprocity, which is social punishment. “Social punishment is a sanctioning behavior that occurs when a person with no apparent benefit (or even at a cost) to himself, punishes deviant behavior that violates existing social norms,” writes Oksana Zinchenko, who published a meta-analysis of neural areas in the brain that affect social punishment in Scientific Reports journal.

Zinchenko analyzed the brain activity of 383 participants from 17 different studies related to social punishment. Participants underwent MRIs while they were engaged in games that simulated events that would violate social norms and lead to social punishment. Zinchenko discovered that factors related to focus, troubleshooting, processing, showcasing empathy to various social interactions and storing information in the working memory during decision-making processes, influenced social punishment.

Two neural networks in the brain act like remote controls to process the varying complexities of what’s good and what’s bad. The inferior parietal lobule evaluates negative situations while the superior temporal sulcus evaluates positive situations. According to research, both areas communicate to interpret their environment and respectively switch on or off depending on how the brain intends to respond to the stimulus. How the brain does assign good or bad depends on the context it is provided to interpret the situation.

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According to more research published in Nature Neuroscience, how a negative action is described also significantly influences the way human beings describe the negative action committed. Emotional, graphic descriptions of violence would “amplify punishment severity, boost [the brain’s] amygdala activity and strengthen amygdala connectivity with lateral prefrontal regions involved in punishment decision-making.” Graphic descriptions of violence i.e. gore and blood would score higher on another person’s scale of hatred as compared to less colorful descriptions of violence. Ideally, to gear up enough motivation to cancel, the brain needs drama.

While the threat of punishment does push individuals to act fairly, human nature is also both manipulable and manipulative. According to research published in Neuron, people with higher tendencies for selfishness, and opportunism, known as Machiavellism, were less likely to behave fairly when there was no threat of punishment, and also more likely to be pretty good at avoiding punishment when the threat of it presents itself.

Considering this, one could conclude that when we do decide to ‘cancel’, our brains immediately value the gravity of information handed to us more than the facts present within the flair of a narrative. Perhaps, a pretty good way to be a responsible individual in such turbulent times is to do our due diligence before we truly arrive at a conclusion.


Written By Aditi Murti

Aditi Murti is a culture writer at The Swaddle. Previously, she worked as a freelance journalist focused on gender and cities. Find her on social media @aditimurti.


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